University Explains Burglary, Arson Attempt and Aftermath in Schottenstein Dorms
Yeshiva University Chief Facilities and Administrative Officer Randy Apfelbaum contended that proper protocols were followed during and following the Dec. 20 burglary and arson incident that took place in the downtown-based Schottenstein Residence Hall in a series of responses to inquiries from The Commentator.
Citing safety concerns, Apfelbaum did not address how many guards were stationed in Schottenstein at the time of the incident, or if paid off-duty NYPD officers contracted by YU were on campus at the time. He similarly did not address whether YU security guards, who are contracted employees of Securitas, a privately-owned security company, are permitted to use physical force when necessary.
According to Apfelbaum, the intruder, whom police identified as Peter Weyand, initially “asked to come in,” but was denied entrance by a security guard. “Recognizing that he posed a potential threat, she immediately called 911,” Apfelbaum said.
“Once the intruder broke the glass on the door and entered the building the intruder was visible to the security guard,” Apfelbaum said. “The guard called for backup and they quickly contained the intruder in the lounge with no other exit — video that is circulating on social media only shows a portion of the incident and does not provide the full context of the incident,” he added.
Apfelbaum said YU Security “followed the established protocols exactly as prescribed, which is why the situation was handled so well and quickly,” noting that the university is “constantly reviewing and updating our approach to security” in the wake of the Jersey City shooting earlier in the month. Apfelbaum did not address The Commentator’s inquiries regarding whether there are plans to have more armed guards on campus, or whether there are discussions concerning arming guards with less lethal weapons, such as pepper spray.
Securitas did not respond to The Commentator’s questions regarding the incident and protocols for security guards in such situations, including the use of physical force.
Following the break-in, Weyand reportedly set several small fires in the dorm lobby using matches left out in the open. According to court documents, the blazes damaged a computer, a desk and toilet paper rolls. “The fire was small but the heat did activate the sprinklers and was contained to the immediate area,” Apfelbaum said, adding that the fire is still under investigation. “There was limited damage to the lounge.”
According to Apfelbaum, the fires were extinguished by the dorm’s sprinkler system, which is triggered by heat. The FDNY’s press release stated that firefighters “[brought] the incident under control,” which “is FDNY terminology for ensuring an operation has ended and the area is now safe for life and property,” FDNY Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Frank Dwyer told The Commentator. Apfelbaum said that waters that flooded the newly-opened Schottenstein communal kitchen were from sprinklers in other areas of the lobby, as opposed to the kitchen’s own sprinklers.
Security guards told students to stay in their rooms and away from the lobby via the dorm’s intercom system, according to Apfelbaum. The NYPD was the first agency to respond, followed by the FDNY. Apfelbaum did not address why resident advisers were not notified of the incident immediately following the break-in.
Apfelbaum said that since “the fire was small and localized,” students were directed to return to and remain in their dorm rooms. “At no time did it pose any danger to the students or the building,” Apfelbaum said regarding the fire.
Dwyer noted that “evacuating a location is not always the best response based on construction and available fire suppression systems. Often, sheltering in place is the best response while FDNY members respond and operate. In this case, there were no civilian injuries, which is great news.”
Under New York law, universities are required to hold at least three fire drills each year, including one between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, and an additional drill between sunset and sunrise for students who dorm. Meanwhile, elementary, middle and high schools are required to hold a minimum of a dozen drills, including eight evacuation and four lock-down drills to prepare students for both fires and active shooter situations. According to Apfelbaum, fire drills are held every three months on the Beren Campus, most recently on Oct. 16.
Since the incident, numerous students have spoken up about their discontent with the way YU communicated with the student body while details were unclear. While Apfelbaum claimed that a security announcement was sent out to Beren students, faculty and staff via email on Friday at 10 a.m. — prior to The Commentator’s initial report on the incident — students reported having only received it at approximately 11:25 a.m., after the article was published. The discrepancy has not been resolved.
Neither the break-in nor the fact that the intruder had set small fires was acknowledged by the Friday morning email; it merely informed Beren students that an “incident” had taken place at Schottenstein Hall. Apfelbaum emphasized that the ongoing investigation prompted YU Security to not “create unnecessary alarm” among the students. Apfelbaum did not respond to The Commentator’s inquiry as to why Wilf students were not informed of the incident at that point.
Given that the break-in occurred hours before Shabbat, the university was limited in its ability to “comment and respond accordingly to inquiries from the media in a timely manner,” according to Apfelbaum. Once Shabbat ended, parents and members of the broader YU community received a security email alert at approximately 7:40 p.m., informing them that the incident “was not a hate crime and the intruder is being charged with arson along with breaking and entering. There is no current threat to our campuses.”
A Beren resident advisor, who wished to remain anonymous, shared with The Commentator that a conference call was arranged for RAs, graduate advisors and other representatives of University Housing on Dec. 21, the Saturday evening following the press coverage of the incident by various major media outlets, including The New York Times, New York Post and CNN. RAs and GAs were advised on how to address the situation and deal with students who were concerned about their safety. The RA who shared these details with The Commentator remarked that “the press kind of forced YU’s hand.” Many students and their parents were upset that YU Security had only reached out to them after major media outlets had covered the incident.
When asked if students have reason to worry about similar events recurring in the future, Apfelbaum noted that YU recently contracted with a third-party consultant to review safety and security measures on all of its campuses. “We have been taking steps to implement a variety of enhancements to physical and operational security and communications protocols on all our campuses, and will continue to do so,” he said.
In response to The Commentator’s inquiry of whether a town hall will be held to address the incident as some students have requested, Apfelbaum said, “Our University Housing Administration and our Counseling Center team are available to speak with any student that has concerns.”
Photo Caption: Footage released by FDNY shows the intruder breaking through the glass door of Schottenstein Residence Hall.
Photo Credit: FDNY